March 19, 2002
Professor explores hidden meanings of money
Money, the old saying goes, can't buy
you happiness. But for many it can buy a sense of achievement,
status and power.
"It's an instrument people use to make social comparisons,"
according to Amy Mickel, professor of organizational behavior
and human resource management. Her research findings suggest
that some people use money as a scorecard to determine their
level of success as well as to judge their status in comparison
"Obviously people want money for its exchange value,"
Mickel said. Yet some people are driven to acquire money far
beyond what they require to satisfy their day-to-day needs.
"There's also these hidden motivational attributes of
money," she said.
Mickel said those hidden attributes are founded in the symbolic
value of money. "It's not about the money. The dollar
amount represents something else," she said. People attuned
to the symbolic value of money are looking for things beyond
"They want status, they want power, they want to feel
they're successful and they have achieved. In work organizations,
money often symbolizes these attributes," she said.
While many management gurus talk about increasing employee
performance through a variety of non-cash rewards, Mickel
said money is still the most commonly used incentive by employers.
As a result, understanding the motivational aspects of money
is essential for organizations seeking to improve employee
"How does an organization distribute money and what is
its symbolic value?" she asked. For example, a company
may offer cash bonuses for meeting certain goals, but who
is eligible for the bonuses and how they are awarded can influence
the symbolic value of the money. "If cash rewards are
given to high performing employees by the CEO in a ceremonial
fashion-that money has a lot of meaning," she said.
But, she noted, while money is an incentive for a lot of people,
it does not motivate everyone.
"A lot of the time there's this blanket statement that
money motivates, but people have very different attitudes
about money," she said. "People want other things,
too, such as feedback or recognition."
Depending on their preferences, people who have different
attitudes toward the value of money also tend to migrate towards
different kinds of careers, Mickel said.
"It's usually not the number one reason for making career
choices, but it's still an important one, usually in the top
five," she said.
Her research findings suggest that those who highly value
money and place a great deal of importance on money tend to
congregate in fields where money is central to the industry,
such as the financial industry.
"I worked for a stock brokerage firm," Mickel said.
"Money was everything for them. Everyone wanted more
money than the broker next to them."
She also worked for a firm that ran hiking and biking tours
and the attitude toward money was markedly different.
In conducting her research, Mickel was surprised to find that
people were happy to talk about money and their attitudes
"It's perceived as this taboo subject but, in reality,
people want to talk about," she said. "People have
opinions about money."
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